Monday, July 11, 2011


On the News of the World website, announcing its final edition on Sunday, July 10, the UK paper patted itself on the back with these words: “After 168 years, we finally say a sad but very proud farewell.”

Proud. Proud of what? Proud of the phone hacking scandal that killed your newspaper, the one that went so far as to hack the cell phone of missing 13-year-old Milly Dowler, even taking the liberty of erasing some of the voicemail messages on her phone when the mailbox became full? One might call that destroying evidence. Is NoTW proud of hacking phone conversations of the royal family? How proud are they of bribing police officers for information? Is it a source of real pride that their amoral billionaire owner Rupert Murdoch bought the century-plus old paper in 1969 and reduced it to a tabloid rag that blatantly mixed photos of topless women with salacious gossip about B-list entertainers and low life criminals?

(If you’re not up on the whole News of the World debacle, click here for a quick timeline update of events from CNN and here for the Daily Beast’s photographic who’s who of the major players).

Any journalist with a modicum of a moral compass would agree NoTW was the definition of sloppy reporting and opportunistic, intrusive journalism. Owner Rupert Murdoch also owns the New York Post and Fox News, neither of which will ever be held as bastions of ethical reportage. So this month when the phone hacking scandal broke wide open and spelled death for the newspaper, it was not a shock. Neither is it surprising to hear that the closing of this newspaper was actually in the works for months, in an effort to trim expenses and absorb only the most valuable staffers into other Murdoch properties. Murdoch, with his usual flare for fantasy, would have us believe he closed the paper to retain the dignity of parent company News Corp after NoTW brought shame to the company.

Tabloid trash journalism is legendary in the UK, but it is certainly NoTW that invented it in its contemporary genre. And if it’s way over on the other side of the pond, you may wonder what this all has to do with you and why it is dominating headlines in this country. It has everything to do with you. The modern media world may be international in scope, but industrially speaking, it is strictly a local enterprise. More simply put, what happens in the halls of the biggest media companies in the world trickles down to your own six o’clock news. As NoTW goes, so goes journalism? God, let’s hope not. Still, it is stunning to know that even in our high tech, gotcha world, an organization as large and powerful as NoTW would have the unmitigated arrogance to tap the phones of British royalty, politicians, celebrities and crime victims. Evidently, the higher ups did not fear being caught. To hear some of the former staffers talk since the scandal erupted, it seems phone hacking was de rigueur.

One can safely conclude the free enterprise system in the media world has gone awry. NoTW may serve as the window that allows media consumers like you and me to see what is happening behind newsroom doors. The competition among media organizations to be first and fastest with information has sullied the final product. No one is guiltier than Murdoch for lowering the bar when it comes to standards and ethics in the news business. That he has fallen prey to his own hubris is a little something we call karma. And the company’s over-anxious reporting shows no signs of slowing. It was Murdoch’s New York Post that earlier this month ran a story about the hotel maid who accused IMF chief Dominick Strauss-Kahn of rape, with this headline: “Maid Cleaning Up As Hooker.” The article uses only one unnamed source to allege that the accuser has a history of charging hotel guests for sex. The maid has now sued the Post for libel
This is not to say that your local paper or your favorite local news station is hacking into your phones. But it is representative of an unfortunate downturn in the ethical construct of journalism. You see it in subtle ways. For example, if in your town there is a bloody murder with video footage of family members screaming in shock at the sight of their loved one laying in the street, and on the same day a story breaks about an economic windfall from state government that will significantly improve your children’s local schools, which story do you believe will lead the 10 p.m. newscast? My guess is the bloody victim in the street wins. By placing the shooting story first, the news station accomplishes two things: First, it keeps you from changing the channel, which is their ultimate goal. Second, their own editorial judgment and ordering of news stories serves to persuade you that a story about school funding is not “sexy” enough to be considered a lead story. Blood and guts wins over your children’s future.

Did you know that on June 6, the same day former NY Congressman Anthony Weiner revealed that indeed he did send inappropriate photos of himself to women, five U.S. soldiers were killed in a rocket attack in Baghdad? The New York Post, among others, gave little or no ink to the deaths. It was the largest single day loss of American lives in Iraq in two years. Were Weiner’s sexual exploits really of more national importance than the deaths of five young men in a war in which we are supposedly no longer participating? The youngest was 20, the oldest 27. One of them, PFC Michael Olivieri, 26, was one week away from returning home to Homer Glen, IL to celebrate his one year wedding anniversary and to attend the wedding of his sister. Seems newsworthy, but current journalistic mores dictate that sex trumps dead soldiers.

The true job of a journalist is to convey information in its purest and most unbiased fashion to you. If you truly want to know what happened to the profession, look no further than Rupert Murdoch. He, and several others in the industry who have forgotten the critical importance of ethics are shaping the discipline of reporting to meet their economic objectives, rather than to keep you properly informed. To paraphrase a popular idiom, Money talks, truth walks. So, what can you do to keep yourself current on world, national and local events?
Get your news from a variety of sources, rather than simply those that validate your own socio/political bias. Listen with a skeptical ear and use your own wisdom to cut through obvious b.s. When instances of journalistic dishonesty or or shoddy reporting happen in your town, speak up. Let the powers that be know that you are watching them with a keen eye and that your support of their product relies on the validity of the information they provide.

If you firmly plant yourself in the consumer driver’s seat, and if you hold media accountable for its misstatements, untruths and misleading material, chances are you can help weed out the bad guys and lift up the more reputable media companies. Truth is a powerful thing. Just ask those nine News of the World journalists and three cops who are now facing prison because of their participation in the NoTW phone hacking debacle. Everybody lost here because of a lack of truth – you and I, the perpetrators, the media industries, and even the all powerful wizard of anti-journalistic Oz, the man Forbes Magazine named as 13th most powerful person in the world in 2010, Rupert Murdoch.


Michael Kearns said...

Excellent, Paul. Very incisive. MK

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